Old Engine Sparks New Hobby

Canadian old engine collector gives engines new life.


Willard Giberson's Acadia make-and-break marine engine, built by Acadia Gas Engines Ltd., Bridgeport, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Photo By Lorain Ebbetts-Rideout

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Standing in his hay barn in Bath, New Brunswick, Canada, Willard Giberson recalls his first engine. “Dad used a 6 hp International dating to the 1920s. I helped him cut wood and thresh grain all over Carlton County. Nothing to it,” he says. “Hook up a belt, turn her over and go to work.” But in the years following World War II, newer power sources soon overshadowed the old hit-and-miss engines. “Everything got faster, farm machinery got bigger, everyone got electricity hooked up, and you didn’t need a big old engine thumping,” he muses. “The old engine sat outside for decades. But in 1986 I decided to see if it would start.”

Rx for old engine

After retrieving the old engine, Willard almost immediately ran into problems. “Everything was seized up tight. Old Dr. Lockhart here in town told me heat the engine up and then pour cool water on it. ‘Holy smokes,’ I said. ‘It will crack to pieces! Cast heated then doused in cold water?’ But I decided to try. Three times I heated that engine up hot. By the third time I figured she’d shatter for sure, but I poured on the water and hit it. The cylinder practically fell out! After that I was hooked bad.”

Willard’s collection of 40 running engines is a good representation of this area of New Brunswick, where farming and forestry are still a big part of the economy. As his interest in old iron grew, he attended shows and his collection quickly expanded. The most common engines he encounters are those built by International Harvester, but Willard has restored everything from Cushman and Massey-Harris to Fairmont and Empire.

He finds many of his relics through word of mouth. “Once people know you’re interested, the phone rings,” he says. “You hear of an engine in a shed or on a lawn with a birdbath attached. I’ve found a few sitting in the woods, abandoned, and traded with other collectors too.” A well-worn copy of American Gasoline Engines by C.H. Wendel lies on his workbench. “If the building was afire,” Willard says, “I’d grab that old Wendel book on the way out!”

Wrong parts lead to rare engine

Willard’s most unusual engine is a 2 hp International Famous vertical air-cooled (serial no. 1746) used to pump water for seven homes at the end of World War I when many rural residents in his area were still carrying water in a pail. A parts order gone astray uncovered the engine’s rarity. “When I ordered a set of rings for it, the wrong set arrived,” he says. “When I re-ordered, the guy on the phone said it was a rare engine and he said, ‘don’t sell it.’ Apparently the International Co. built very few of these air-cooled engines; I’ve had many chances to sell it.”

Finding the right part for an engine restoration can be very complicated. “So many engines are made up of various parts, and the (serial number) plates are nearly always missing,” Willard says. “Someone said the plates got removed and taken to the parts counter. You’ve got to remember many of those old farmers couldn’t read or write. So they’d pull off the plate when ordering and probably leave it in town.”

Fifty-two years of neglect

Willard’s favorite engine is a 1915 4 hp Gault (650 rpm). “This was used by a sawmill in Argyl to cut up slab wood,” he says. “A fellow who worked at the mill told me about it and one spring we tried to find it. The old mill was rotted away and the fellow had a hard time finding the site. We found the engine with a big black spruce growing up through it. The skids had rotted away and it fell over so the hopper was saved from cracking. The saw blade was lying there and a piece of old belt was attached. The mill owner walked away and left it sitting there: Can you imagine? But what a job getting it out!” After installing new valves, Willard claims the Gault started on the second crank. “I enjoy this engine the most,” he says. “Fifty-two years of neglect and on the second try it starts!”

No collection from Atlantic Canada is complete without a marine make-and-break engine from a fishing boat. The Acadia Willard found was used to run a long driveshaft back to the propeller. “This Acadia ran a little faster, I believe, than a hit-and-miss,” he says. “This one was in tough shape. I never saw one before. I didn’t know much about them and information was pretty sparse. Only trouble I had was the first time I cranked it up, the darn thing raced away until I got it shut off. Scared me half to death.”

‘A marvel how they last’

Willard enjoys the process of bringing old engines back to life. “Working with these engines, getting them cleaned up and running, is such a pleasure,” he says. “Picture an engine built in 2013, left out in the weather, snow and rain, for years. Imagine the condition it will be in, say, in 50 years. Some of these old engines have been outside for decades, or maybe sitting around in a barn and never turned over for a lifetime, but I got them running.”

He marvels at the workmanship. “The cast is so smooth and not porous like other cast iron is,” he says. “I mean, run your hand inside the sleeve: It’s just like glass. Now of course it was a different process than they used making skillets. It’s a marvel how they last. Engines today run so fast, they’re so high speed compared to a hit-and-miss. At 450 rpm all day, you don’t hurt yourself. But the lasting power and endurance, I think that’s what got me hooked on working with them.” FC 

Cary Rideout lives in Carlow, New Brunswick, Canada, on his family farm with his artist wife, Lorain. Contact him by email at clrideout@xplornet.ca.

Learn about Giberson's other collecting interests in Old Iron Collector Has Diverse Interests in Antiques.